Greenwashing tourism: how to tell a sustainable ecotourism business from an unethical one

Posted by Kristi Foster on 26 July 2016 | Comments

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‘Eco,’ ‘green,’ ‘environmentally-friendly’ and ‘sustainable’: many of us look for terms like these when we travel because they fit with our values and signal that we’re making responsible decisions. But what do you do when a business labels itself ecotourism yet its practices fly in the face of environmental sustainability?

Here at Ecotourism Australia, we recently received two phone calls asking just that. It rattled our moral compasses so much that we’ve written this blog post to help tourists navigate the many shades of ‘green’ in the ecotourism industry – and help ensure that genuine ecotourism prevails over marketing hype.

Eco-conscious or eco-con?

Ecotourism is in high demand. International visitor arrivals could hit 1.8 billion by 2030 and ecotourism is predicted to grow more rapidly over the coming decades than traditional mass tourism.

In Australia, ecotourism has rocketed from unknown entity to global phenomenon in the last 30 years and nature-based tourism already makes up 75% of the international tourism market. Not only do more than a third of travelers now prefer environmentally-friendly tourism, they’re willing to pay up to 40% more for it.

Tasmanian Walking Company Advanced Ecotourism TAS hiking group

Tourists are looking for more ethical and personal experiences, such as this Advanced Ecotourism-certified walk by Tasmanian Walking Company.

While customer demand (and good economic sense) are putting environmental sustainability at the forefront of many tourism business models, a disturbing number of businesses are adopting feel-good terms like ‘eco-friendly’ and ‘green’ in their marketing plans to exploit our eco-consciences and secure a piece of the growing environmentally-aware market pie.

‘Greenwashing,’ the practice of misleadingly promoting products as environmentally sustainable, is on the rise in the tourism industry. Without diving into a company’s carbon policy or composting toilet, how can you tell if a business really follows ecotourism principles?

1. Look for certified products

Certified tourism products (tours, attractions or accommodation) meet predetermined standards verified by an independent third party. For example, Ecotourism Australia (EA) has certified more than 500 tourism operators across the country as environmentally and/or culturally responsible under our ECO Certification and other certification programs.

EA’s ECO Certification is based on transparent evidence of how operators meet environmental and/or cultural criteria, ranging from wastewater treatment to impact on wildlife, and verified by trained, independent auditors.

Find out what certification standards are available in your area and look for their logos. If you suspect that a business is using false labels, ask to see a copy of their certification.

Longhorn YOUnique Tours ROCEcotourism Great Otway National Park2

Great Otway National Park captured on an Ecotourism-certified Longhorn YOUnique Tour.

2. Ask for proof

We live in a time when anyone can have a professional-looking website. And we know that large corporations can employ experts to promote unfounded ‘green’ messages in convincing ways.

Even if a business isn’t third-party certified, if an environmental claim is true, they should be able to back it up with supporting evidence or information. Do they have a written environmental plan? How do they manage waste, energy consumption or carbon emissions? What percentage of their supplies do they source locally? What environmental or cultural achievements have they made recently?

3. Look at the bigger picture

Reusing towels, recycling and switching to LED lights are all great initiatives – and we encourage all businesses to do so! But having just a few green initiatives rarely makes a product environmentally sustainable (meaning that it has no long-term negative impact on the environment) unless everything else is green, too.

Becoming truly sustainable – no matter how economically smart a move – takes serious commitment and a lot of work. That work covers areas such as how land is developed, how water and energy are used, how greenhouse gas emissions are managed and how impacts on plants, animals and ecosystems are avoided. Without a holistic approach, tourism is only superficially green.

Lady Elliot Island Eco Resort Advanced Ecotourism Climate Action Business Ecolodge QLD Solar Panels 2.

Solar panels on Advanced Ecotourism and Climate Action Business-certified Lady Elliot Island Eco Resort, Queensland.

4. Question vague words

What does a business mean by ‘eco-friendly’ or ‘natural'? These words might tickle our eco-consciences, but they only count if we know what they stand for.

Look out also for ‘jargon’ - language that only specialists could understand. Any responsible business should be able to communicate exactly what it is doing in clear language that anyone can understand.

5. Remember that “going green” isn’t being green

Environmental sustainability is a journey. It takes time and effort for a business to make positive changes and it’s important to recognise accomplishments along the path to achieving bigger goals.

But if a company says it’s committed to “going green,” you can still ask questions. When did the company begin its journey? What changes have they made since? What have they accomplished in the past year?

Mt Barney Lodge Advanced Ecotourism Climate Action Business QLD Scenic Rim Picking up waste

Picking up waste at Advanced Ecotourism and Climate Action Business-certified Mt Barney Lodge, Queensland.

What you can do

Just because a business uses terms like ‘ecotourism’ or ‘green’ without being truly sustainable doesn’t mean they are unethical; they might just be overexcited about their initiatives. But if we let blatant greenwashing run unchecked, we risk damaging the credibility of the ecotourism industry as a whole. Tourists trying to do the right thing can easily become lost in the raft of ‘eco’ terms bantered about by the industry and lose confidence - or worse, become skeptical - about ecotourism.

If you take the time to make informed travel decisions, you have the power to drive sustainable innovation in tourism. One of the most meaningful things tourists can do is to share ecotourism experiences (positive or negative) with friends, family and others in their network. What did you learn about the environment you visited? Did your stay respect it? Did your trip contribute to the wellbeing of local communities?

If you believe that a business in Australia is misleading consumers, you can read about Australian Consumer Law or contact the Australian Competition & Consumer Commission (untruthful environmental marketing claims can incur severe penalties).

Visit our Green Travel Guide and follow our logos to find certified ecotourism operators in Australia. You might also want to check out the Seven Sins of Greenwashing (this was developed for home products but many of the sins apply to tourism, too).

Be curious, ask questions, share your story and help genuine ecotourism evolve! 


Main image: A Nature Tourism-certified guided tour by Rawnsley Park Station, South Australia. 

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